After a brief reprieve, retail sales slipped in August, surprisingly led by declines in online sales.
Seasonally adjusted sales for apparel and accessories retailers fell 1 percent in August to $21.62 billion, compared to July, when month-over-month sales increased 0.5 percent to $21.83 billion. But compared with a year ago, sales in the sector were up 0.5 percent, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Department store sales fell 0.1 percent to $12.65 billion during the month, after rising 0.9 percent and hitting $21.83 billion in July. The performance in August was better than a year ago, when department store sales were down 0.8 percent.
Breaking from the growth trend of recent years, sales at non-store retailers, a category that includes web sites and mail order houses, also fell in August, by 1.1 percent to $51.71 billion. In July non-store sales rose 1.8 percent to $52.28 billion and in August 2016, sales grew 8.4 percent.
Sales at non-store retailers are still growing much faster than those for apparel retailers. Since last August, non-store sales are up 10.5 percent while sales for specialty and department stores are down 2.8 percent combined.
Overall retail sales fell by 0.2 percent to $489.85 billion in August after a 0.3 percent increase in July, but year-over-year sales are up 3.2 percent.
Charlie O’Shea, lead retail analyst at Moody’s Investor Service, said the August numbers show “a mixed bag, with the month-over-month drop indicative of a still-choppy environment for the U.S. consumer.”
As for whether Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that have battered the southwest and southeast in recent weeks affected the monthly sales numbers, the Census Bureau said it doesn’t break out numbers by geographic location and that its data collection was generally uninterrupted.
“While a few individual firms reported large increases or decreases in their sales because of the effects of the hurricane, this additional variation was not large enough to substantially affect the reliability of the published estimates,” the bureau said.
James Bohnaker, associate director of economic research firm IHS Markit, said in a note that the August numbers no doubt showed “the early effects” of Harvey, but he expects “to see some payback once hurricane effects dissipate.”
“The bigger story is that consumer spending looks to have been subdued even earlier in the summer,” Bohnaker said. “Retail sales initially appeared to be gaining momentum in June and July, but downward revisions make it very unlikely that consumer spending will come close to the 3.3 percent growth rate achieved in the second quarter.”
The National Retail Federation earlier this month cut its expectations for annual retail sales, estimating they now will grow by no more than 3.8 percent after initially forecasting a maximum increase of 4.2 percent.
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